In Gaza, $25 cigarettes are turning aid trucks into targets

A man sells cigarettes in a market, ahead of Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Rampant cigarette smuggling has become the latest manifestation of a breakdown in law and order that is slowing the delivery of lifesaving assistance in Gaza. (Photo: AFP)
A man sells cigarettes in a market, ahead of Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Rampant cigarette smuggling has become the latest manifestation of a breakdown in law and order that is slowing the delivery of lifesaving assistance in Gaza. (Photo: AFP)

Summary

A breakdown in law and order is making it too dangerous to deliver aid, U.N. officials say

A group of Palestinian men approached a United Nations warehouse in central Gaza last week and demanded access to aid stored inside. The gang wasn’t interested in food, fuel or medicine. It wanted something it considered far more valuable: contraband cigarettes hidden in the humanitarian cargo.

The incident, described by a U.N. official, is emblematic of a significant new impediment to aid deliveries in the enclave. Rampant cigarette smuggling—fueled by high prices for tobacco—has become the latest manifestation of a breakdown in law and order that is slowing the delivery of lifesaving assistance.

Aid trucks and storage depots have become targets for Palestinian smugglers seeking to retrieve illicit smokes stashed inside shipments by their accomplices, say U.N. and Israeli officials. Other local criminals are also attacking vehicles they suspect have cigarettes hidden somewhere on board, they say.

Cigarettes sell for as much as $25 apiece in isolated Gaza, so getting hold of even a pack can be enormously profitable.

Prices have soared for smokes since Israel limited imports into Gaza to essential goods—which doesn’t include cigarettes—after the Oct. 7 attacks in which Hamas militants and others poured into southern Israel and killed around 1,200 people, according to authorities. More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing war, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Trade in cigarettes managed to continue for months, with smokes surreptitiously making it through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which Hamas-backed authorities controlled. But when Israeli forces seized control of that crossing on May 6, the door was slammed shut on cigarette deliveries. Cigarette smugglers found another route through the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza but were unable to pull trucks aside to unload their contraband, as they had at Rafah.

Criminal attacks on aid convoys have become so severe that over a thousand truckloads of aid have been left sitting on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel. Even a daily Israeli pause in fighting along a critical supply route hasn’t been enough to get aid groups to move shipments.

“This is threatening to undermine everything we’re trying to do," a U.N. official said.

Aid groups say there are other challenges aside from cigarette smuggling that are hampering efforts to distribute aid. Israel places limits on the flow of aid, they charge, and fighting, lawlessness and the widespread destruction of roads and infrastructure have made it too difficult for them to safely deliver and distribute it throughout the Gaza Strip.

Israel says it puts no limits on the amount of aid that can enter Gaza, has fixed roads used by aid convoys, and that the U.N. and other aid groups haven’t increased their capacity enough.

Some aid groups have been especially hesitant to put workers at risk after an Israeli military strike in April killed seven World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza. The Israeli military said it had misidentified the group as militants.

A second U.N. official said that on Tuesday, three armed men arrived at another U.N. warehouse in central Gaza, demanding to search through the aid. They found the cigarettes they were looking for in a box of aid. The Wall Street Journal viewed a picture of the box with a U.N. logo ripped open, exposing cartons of Karelia cigarettes inside.

“Cigarettes have become like the new gold in Gaza," the official said.

Israeli officials said they have found cigarettes being smuggled among aid or carried by drivers. Sometimes smugglers tuck one or two packs into hollowed out watermelons or stuff them into a bag or carton of legitimate goods, said a Palestinian familiar with the smuggling operations.

“The Israelis conduct thorough checks on a few selected boxes but cannot possibly inspect every single pack, box or carton," he said.

A Palestinian man in Deir al Balah said he saw armed men on aid trucks open three bags of flour that had fallen off one of the trucks to check them carefully. When they found nothing, they hopped back on the truck and moved on.

“If those bags had contained cigarettes, those men would have killed anyone who touched them," said the man.

Distributing aid has been one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of the war in Gaza, where U.N. experts say people face widespread hunger or malnutrition. The main U.N. agency operating in Gaza said 1,656 aid trucks entered the enclave in May. In the first half of June, 460 came in. Before the war, some 500 trucks of commercial goods entered the Gaza Strip daily, in addition to 100 trucks of humanitarian aid for those in need, according to the U.N.

Scott Anderson, the Gaza-based director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said the agency has been unable to send trucks to collect goods from Kerem Shalom since Saturday because of security concerns.

People no longer smoke in public in Gaza. For those who are wealthy enough to smoke, it is a private affair.

“Surely, anyone who smokes a cigarette costing more than $10 feels ashamed to show their face to their children while smoking, knowing that their addiction is an illness," said Abu Suleiman, 66 years old, from Deir al Balah.

Saleh al-Batati and Abeer Ayyoub contributed to this article.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Dov Lieber at dov.lieber@wsj.com

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

MINT SPECIALS